Local Tongan Catholics send aid back to island-nation

Samarahope Palepale, front row center, who gave up her first holy Communion party to pay for a Tongan relief effort, is surrounded by family and youth from St. Augustine Church, Waikiki, in front of a cargo container. Below, Samara in a Facebook video explains her decision. (Photos courtesy of the Tongan Catholic Community)

By Anna WeaverHawaii Catholic Herald

Local Tongan Catholics recently sent three shipping containers back to their homeland to help family, friends and strangers who are still recovering from a volcanic eruption and its aftereffects.

The idea for a shipment back to Tonga started with one family who had been saving money for a party to celebrate the first Communion of their daughter, Samarahope Palepale. She asked her mom, Seletute Palepale-Vehikite, whether instead of having a party, she could use that money to send supplies back to Tonga and ask others to contribute.

“When she said yes, I was so happy and glad because that will help me strengthen my faith in God and draw me closer to him,” Samara said in a Feb. 5 Facebook video announcing the effort.

Family business E Masonry teamed up with Samara, and the effort was named “Hope for Tonga.” Samara’s mother and aunty Oseola Vakameilalo and other family members helped lead the organization of the donations.

“Little Samara was not asking for monetary contributions, she was letting the Tongan people know she didn’t want her party but to use the funds to send the help to Tonga,” Vakameilalo said. “Instead of sending just donations to the government agencies, we funded the shipment of these containers to Tonga for the Tongans here to send their help to each of their families back home.”

St. Augustine Parish in Waikiki has about 100 members in its Tongan Catholic community, many of whom contributed to the aid shipment. Youth from St. Augustine under the guidance Petronilla Sole also gave donations as did St. Jude Parish in Kapolei along with several other local businesses and organizations and fellow church communities like Lighthouse Ministry in Waipahu.

Local Tongan Catholics send aid back to island-nation

Tao Sevelo, a St. Augustine parishioner, has a daughter and two grandchildren back in Tonga who have told him there are still issues with food and water supplies two months after the eruption.

“Whatever we could think of, we bought and sent,” Sevelo said of the “Hope for Tonga” group. That included items like water, rice, sugar, saimin, canned food, soap, toilet paper, socks, new clothes, paper masks, furniture and pop-up tents.

Two 40-foot containers were filled by local Tongans in Hawaii with bins and barrels containing items for their own family and friends to receive. “Hope for Tonga” covered the shipping and a third container held donations for anyone back in Tonga.

All three shipping containers were loaded in mid-March but have to dock in Los Angeles before heading to Tonga where they should arrive in a month or two.

On the receiving end of the shipment will be Father Paulo Amato at the Catholic Parish of Houma in Tongatapu, who will give out the non-designated donations to the elderly and those with no family overseas.

Sevelo noted that several other local Christian communities with ties to Tonga also sent their own aid back to the island nation.

The Jan. 15 underwater eruption from Hunga Tonga, which sits close offshore from the island nation, caused damaging tsunami waves and rained down ash and other volcanic debris. It sent ash 36 miles into the air, according to NASA, reaching into the third layer of earth’s atmosphere.

Tonga has a population of 105,000 across 36 inhabited islands. While only three people died in the aftermath of the eruption from tidal waves sweeping them away, breathing in ash after the eruption caused health issues for some locals. Saltwater and ash also contaminated water sources. And COVID cases, possibly introduced by aid workers to the largely COVID-free nation, continue to rise as of mid-March.

The eruption and resulting tidal waves caused extensive property and infrastructure damage in the archipelago. The quake temporarily cut off most communication and power and severed the islands’ underwater internet cable, the latter of which wasn’t restored until more than five weeks after the eruption.

The Diocese of Honolulu asked parishes to take up an emergency second collection for Tonga on the weekend of Feb. 26 and 27 that will be sent directly to the Diocese of Tonga to assist the neediest parish communities there. But the total amount collected won’t be known until closer to April 1.